Respectability Politics

Respectability politics is a term most commonly used in or in reference to African-American interactions with society at large.  It proposes that there would be less racism in America if black men wore belts.  Or if black women didn’t have children without the benefit of a marriage licence.  It puts responsibility for external attitudes on the individual.  This is problematic in a lot of ways…  hoodie-wearing should not be a death sentence in the case of Trayvon Martin.  The problem in that case was George Zimmerman, not Trayvon Martin.  Respectability politics suggests that Trayvon could have controlled Zimmerman’s reaction to him by wearing a suit and tie.  Respectability politics is society’s equivalent of an abused spouse internalizing and owning the abuser’s assertion that the spouse is only subject to a black eye because they know better than to disagree with the abuser.  If you didn’t piss me off, I wouldn’t have to beat the shit out of you.

But this mentality is deeply ingrained.  And it isn’t just within the African American community.  We are a country with a skitzy understanding of personal responsibility.  Listen to the self-descriptions of people who are long-term unemployed.  They talk about all the things they should have done, as if any individual cog can control the big gears of our society.  An individual cog can move the big gears, but it has to be in the right place.  Like the head of Goldman Sachs.  Little cogs from the working class in Indiana had nothing to do with the global forces that have shaped our economy in the past 50 years.  You’d have to look to the politicians for that.
Collectively, there isn’t one former miner or factory worker who could have been respectful enough, educated enough, good enough, or well-spoken enough to save the jobs that provided middle-class lives to high school graduates.  You can’t look at the long-term unemployed and subject them to the same rational that drives respectability politics.
You should have tried harder.  You should have done better.  What do these statements even mean?  Better is not a measure.  It isn’t a concrete action.  We all do the best we can with what we have at any given decision point.  No one wakes up and says “I think I’ll fuck up permanently today.”
None of which improves the individual experience.  What is true collectively doesn’t hold up individually.  All it does individually is absolve someone of self-recrimination for the past, freeing them up to address the future.  Respectability politics wouldn’t have saved you, and they aren’t going to save you now.  I don’t propose anything criminal, but I most certainly propose those things that don’t require someone else’s permission.
Respectability Politics


I’m going to see a therapist tonight, which is a little odd because I think I’m doing okay, but I could be wrong.  This is the first therapy appointment I’ve made since 2006, when a racist cow of a licensed social worker told me all black men are misogynists.  I was dating a black man at the time in a situation that was, admittedly, ill-advised.  But not because all black men are misogynists.  I never went back.  And I didn’t try to replace the cow.  

Fast forward to this therapist, who is a member of a practice that I visit for my thyroid issues.  I met her a couple of weeks ago, liked her, and thought why not.

Except I’m not sure what I want to talk about.  I think I’m fine, more or less.  So I’m a little medicated, sure, but who isn’t vaguely depressed by 9-5 normalcy?  To quote Queen Bey…

The 9 to 5, just to stay alive

All the people on the planet

Working 9 to 5 just to stay alive

How come?

So as I’m wandering the corridors of my workplace, I’m trying to decide what I am going to talk about.  And I notice that I’m already curating.  How can I present myself so that I can be perceived as sardonic, smart, and reasonably sane?  Strong too.  I spend a  reasonable amount of effort arranging myself to show these traits off.  Which isn’t to say that I am a farce and deep down I’m a kicked puppy with my own personal rain cloud and no sense of humor.  But don’t we all try to do this?  Arrange our presentation so the things we like the most about ourselves are obvious?

But then I have to ask…  what am I hiding?  The facts of my life – my recent life in particular – aren’t a secret.  I’m not particularly ashamed of my failings.  We don’t get to pick to be all good and no bad, all light and no shadow.  So why the half-formed attempt to arrange it all so carefully?  

Maybe because I’m pretty sure nothing is wrong.  I’m tired and don’t have myself together to swim regularly anymore and my exercise time has disappeared and the yard is kicking my ass, but I love my little house and I love the company that I keep and my job pays the bills comfortably and I have so little to complain about, sitting down with a therapist seems indulgent.



Writing, at least for the past month+, has involved intensive research and writing on the subject of Ebola, or more specifically, Ebola in West Africa.  I know more about Ebola than I ever wanted to know.  It is one of those subjects that exposes everything wrong with our media.

First of all, the general tenor of the media reporting has had a distinct flavor of “those uneducated, backwards brown people.”  Do any reading at all, and you’d think that the “traditional burial practices” involve rolling around with the dead person, propping them up in the corner and sitting on their lap like Santa Clause.  Here are your traditional burial practices:  wash the body, have a funeral to which the entire community is invited and at which family and friends are likely to touch the deceased, and bury the body.

What of this is so different than the way we bury people here?  Okay, so we farm out the washing to the mortuary, where they suck out all of the fluids and replace them with chemicals, then paint up the body so it approximates life.  Then we have funerals, and I’ve been to several.  People touch the body here and kiss the forehead here too.  And then the body is buried.  If my mom had died of Ebola, I would have caught it.  I touched her as she was laying in the hospital, I touched her after she died.  The problem isn’t cultural nuances, it is that someone who dies of Ebola is more contagious after they’ve died, so any contact at all is a risk for transmission.  Yet and still, the bodies must be buried.

Second, you’d think that pervasive ignorance was to blame for the magnitude of the spread of this Ebola outbreak.  No mention of abject, grinding poverty.  No discussion of corrupt governments, the legacy of civil war, not enough doctors, health clinics with too little staff, no supplies…  Nope, those backwards brown people.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, the narrative about how the western world – the “international community” – intervened with education, contact tracing, safe burials, and proper care protocols, and saved the day.  Clearly, money made a huge difference.  Money, supplies, doctors, etc.  And yes, education was required.  All of that required resources…  Ebola had never been seen in West Africa before.  But West Africans did a hell of a lot to save themselves too.  And the idea that learning was a problem doesn’t hold water, because the same report that hints at ignorance and intractability also points out that stigma and fear of Ebola lead to healthcare workers being ostracized and threatened with violence.

Get into the story and it’s fair to say that Ebola in West Africa was a clusterfuck of epic proportions, and will continue to be felt for a long time.  Ebola is terrifying, but what about the fact that kids who didn’t get vaccinated because the whole system fell apart over Ebola are now at risk for dying for measles at a rate equal to the number of Ebola deaths?  Yeah.  Bet the media isn’t going to have histrionics about *that.*

So yes.  I know more about Ebola than I ever wanted to know.  And I’m incredibly grateful that I haven’t had to watch anyone I love die of it.  And the Ebola orphans make me want to quit everything and just go hug children in Africa.  And I hate how stupidly, structurally colonial and racist the media is.

That is all.


Thinking ‘Bout You

Life has sort of gotten back to normal, more or less.  I’ve consciously moved away from writing about Mom, in part because I don’t want to be macabre blogger obsessed with her own sadness, in part because, let’s face it:  Life is for the living.  That being said, there are a couple of things that are a little bit about her – or a lot.  This house hunting thing.  She would have loved it.  She was big about details, so whereas I can’t keep track of which house has the most square feet, she would have had a notebook with neat columns for comparison.  Me?  This house is the one with that awesome original 1950’s skylight in the bathroom, and that one is the one with the disastrous original kitchen and the radiant heating.  Do I want the skylight or the radiant heating?

The housing, she would have loved.  The tattoo?  Not so much.

I started out with one…  she didn’t like it.  As I’ve gotten older, I ended up not liking it so much either.  It wasn’t really proportionate to my body, it wasn’t that well done.  Of course, she didn’t like it because she didn’t like tattoos at all, so the fix I had done at the Baltimore Tattoo Convention wouldn’t have made her any happier.  It turns out I was too hasty in picking a guy.  It’s a solid tattoo and I like it, but then there was this guy and he was AMAZING.  My roommate got the tattoo of her dreams from him and, had there been time, I think I would have just let him doodle on me.  If I ever do the ink thing again, he’s definitely my man.

Which is a long way around to get to what I’m really trying to say, which is that I’m thinking about the lady.  Just not saying that much.

Thinking ‘Bout You

How Long?

There has to be some point after which I can no longer blame my disengagement on my mother’s dying.  Or more accurately, on having watched my mother die.  I’m having trouble calling people back, or answering the phone for things that don’t feel particularly relevant.   If you call me and leave a message, the information has been transferred.  I can’t remember why I’m supposed to call you back if I don’t have anything new to add.  Obviously, it is the polite thing to do, but the polite thing seems fuzzy and distant.

People that matter to me, that I genuinely like.  I owe them e-mail or text or something to let them know that I’m still alive, that their cards and words of kindness were received and read.  I haven’t done it in too many cases.

I don’t think it is depression exactly.  I’m getting things done.  I’m keeping up with the laundry, crossing things off the to-do list.  I’m just faring really poorly with the things that are normally a challenge for me.  If the social thing isn’t immediately tied to the thing that is happening in my head, then I have to remember to pay attention.

I think I’m probably past my blanket excuse expiration date.  A while back I dreamed I was trying to reach a kid that had been traumatized by coming through a war zone.  The kid was telling me I could never understand where they were coming from: displacement, watching loved ones die in front of them.  I sat down next to the kid and said “actually, I kind of get it.  Not exactly the same experience, but it wasn’t sunshine and ice cream for me either.”

Let’s be honest here.  It wasn’t bad like war zone bad.  I had The Boss.  She had expert medical care and the best oblivion drugs insurance can provide.  Surely I’m being a bit of a drama mamma here, trying to explain my untethered by blaming my mother.  People go through this all the time.  I think I need to get over myself and start answering the phone.

How Long?

The Argument Before the Argument

Words are vehicles for transmitting bits of yourself into someone else.  I bet you can think of something nice that someone said to you ten years ago.  I bet you know that person’s name, maybe what they were wearing at the time, and what their face looks like.  Similarly, I’m pretty sure you can look back ten years and see someone who said something hurtful to you.  Words are immortality, in a way, because so long as someone remembers our words, we live on.

Yes, so many of our words are throw-aways.  We talk about nothing and everything.  We talk to keep the air full of something.  We talk to remember that we exist.  And it isn’t always possible to know which words are going to be kept and which ones will vanish.  Not every conversation is a keeper.

But those conversations that are intended to be kept, the ones that make or break friendships, or love.  I want to talk about the words that we use in those.

Over the past week, I’ve talked to a couple of people contemplating serious conversations with people they love over the state of a relationship.  The pre-conversation conversation starts with “can I say this?” and then something comes out that I know has been considered and edited and rearranged for days, if not weeks, if not years.

And always, these things that we want to say are a hand extended by reaching around the shield.  Comments that give and take in the same breath.  Designed to hedge the bet about how the other guy is going to react, or to manipulate the other side of the conversation.  Part posturing, part supplication.  We’ve all done it, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it.  And it is maddening.

With one friend, we started out with “why do you hate me” and ended up with what she really wanted to say, which was “can we try this again?”  “Why do you hate me” is easier to say.  It is less vulnerable.  There isn’t the possibility of a “no” at the end of it.  It is demanding rather than giving, it seeks an outcome rather than saying what it is.  There’s not much by way of honesty in it, unless you count the honest desire for engagement behind it.  “Can we try this again” is straightforward.  It opens you up for a clear, clean “no.”  It is vulnerable.  It admits a wanting for something that you might not be able to have.  But it is also distinctly lacking in coercion, manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or attempts to control the outcome.  It’s terrifying.  It’s impossibly vulnerable for someone who has been hurt – and we’ve all been hurt.

I saw some back and forth over text from another friend.  “I know you’ve moved on…” one party said.  Well, did they know that?  Or was that a defense mechanism and a backhanded way to ask “have you moved on?”  And the conversation disintegrated from there until no one knew what the other guy was saying because the words that were being used hadn’t been born clean.  The words were stuck trying to carry too much that was at odds with itself.

We all plan these conversations.  We argue before we argue, working out strategy about how we’re going to play the different aspects of our position, using our real pain in manipulative ways to orchestrate the empathy in our favor. It isn’t like you aren’t thinking about how to have that conversation already.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is going to hurt either way you go about it.  All of your fancy words and making the meaning double up on itself until no one can tell which is sincere and which is sarcastic; even your manipulations, trying to nudge things in your favor, even that is going to hurt.  Negotiating relationships hurts.  Full stop.  It’s scary.  And there is no way to protect yourself from the terror, at least not if you want an authentic connection.

From a writer.  As a writer.  As someone who thinks about using words well all the damn time.  Really.  All the damn time.  Play that conversation out.  With every iteration, push your words closer to simplicity and closer to the naked truth until you can get to the plainest words there are.  Words that don’t try to shape the other person’s answer.  Just the words.  Remember: this is someone you love.  This is someone you believe you need in your life.  This is someone who makes everything better when they’re in the room.  They fart sunshine and shit glitter.  You can’t stop thinking about them.  It’s been years and you’re still missing them.  They’re still all you can see.  The first thing on your mind in the morning; the falling asleep breath on your pillow holds their name.  Start with the truth, and let the truth set you free.

I miss you.  I love you.  I want you to be happy, and I want to be a part of your happy. What can I do to make that happen?

The Argument Before the Argument

Sticking With You

Some days I feel like giving up.  I don’t know what to do, and I’m really at my best when I’m doing.  Sitting still is a problem for me.  I don’t do it easily.   Yet, as things stand, sitting still is the most profound kind of doing available to me.

I get accused often of trying to save you.  No one believes me when I say that’s not what I’m trying to do.  We can’t save other people in any existential sense.  We each must save ourselves.  I promise, I don’t want to save you.  Not that I don’t want to see you saved, I just know that externally-sourced salvation never lasts.

You have a story.  I don’t know it in its entirety.  There’s a general shape and outline, so I know it’s big and I know it isn’t pretty.  The only thing I’m sure of is that you’ve got this story.

So what am I doing here?  I’m sticking with you.

From every external angle, this looks like stupidity.  It looks like wasting time.  It looks like throwing good love after bad.  Even you’ve questioned my sanity, perhaps joking, perhaps parroting insults that have been lobbed at you like little opinion grenades intended to maim.  It looks like I don’t know what I deserve.  It looks like I don’t love myself.

That’s kind of hard to take, by the way.  That so many people in my life have these pop-psychology labels for what’s going on here.  It’s amazing how many clinical terms you can find in a single conversation that doesn’t involve a licensed professional.  That’s not what I think I’m doing, however.

Maybe it’s a little arrogant, but I think this is what bravery looks like.  I think this is love.  Although I have a preferred outcome, I live with an acute awareness that this outcome is not promised to me.   It’s not brave because I am trying to be a hero.  Its brave because the hardest thing to do is to be with someone who is trying desperately to save themselves, particularly when neither of you knows whether or not it’s going to end well.

I don’t mean “with” in the romantic sense.  Not like “I’m with so-and-so.”  I mean with in the way that you’re empathetically present for friends or strangers with a story that’s too big for one person to have to manage alone.  Some things we let happen as a community, which means that it takes more than one person to manage the aftermath.

So what I mean is that I’ll stay up and keep the watch while you take a nap, if you’ll let me.  And if not, I’ll sit up with you for as long as I can.  And when I run out of wakefulness, I’ll trust you enough to put my head on your lap and nap next to you.  This withfulness doesn’t require your explanation or your asking or your confessions.  I’m here because it’s where I want to be.  It’s easy, it’s free, and it’s yours.

By the way, if you ever get grateful for all this withfulness, thank Ashana M. for helping me reconnect with my clarity.   Her story isn’t your story, but she articulates the value of having someone with you, from whatever distance, as you do what you have to do to come to terms with whatever your story is made of.

Sticking With You